Flaming June at Leighton House Museum

Belphoebe New

Leighton House is already covered from head to toe in the paintings of its past owner, Victorian artist Frederic Leighton, but one image has been noticeably absent over the years, Flaming June. It’s been on a few diversions, allegedly discovered inside a chimney, before being lent to the Ashmolean in Oxford until 1930, going completely awol after that until 1962, where it was found gathering dust at a junk shop in Battersea (and was nearly bought by a young Andrew Lloyd Webber for £50). Until recently it has had a permanent residence at The Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, but it has now been returned temporarily, on loan from Puerto Rico, to its original home at Leighton House. Shown alongside some of Frederic Leighton’s other formative works, this exhibition demonstrates how the context in which we see a painting can be so crucial to our perception and experience of it.

Wandering through Leighton House to the main exhibition is quite an experience in itself. Winding through the study, where books, tools and sketches are still intact, up the stairs and through the drawing room, we gain an insight into the artist himself that a traditional museum setting can rarely ever give us. The main exhibition feels separate from the atmosphere of the house’s main rooms, a darker room sealed off with museum rope. Five paintings created by Leighton for submission to The Royal Academy in 1895 are exhibited here (there was one other that appears to have been lost forever) most significantly of course, Flaming June. What is so striking about this painting, what sets it apart from the others, is the incredible use of vivid colour, both the bright orange drapery of the woman’s dress and the golden light that bathes her. It is the perfect example of a piece of art that copies cannot possibly replicate, that you really must see in the flesh to understand its power. The dreamy haziness of the painting transports us to the hotter, Mediterranean climes that the subject lounges sleepily in. The subject’s draped dress evokes the hazy sunlight of faraway exotic places, and the intricate technical detail almost makes it seem as if she is sleeping right next to us. 

Photo: Kevin Moran, courtesy Leighton House Museum

Despite the painting’s ability to catch your eye immediately, it was by no means popular for the time. Leighton’s Victorian paintings were rapidly going out of fashion towards the latter end of the 19th century, and he struggled to sell them. It appears alongside some of his other female subject studies, as showcased in the Academy Exhibition of 1895, Lachrymae, The Maid with Golden Hair, Twixt Hope and Fear and Candida. These paintings retain a certain power from being exhibited together, reflecting Leighton’s body of work in 1895, whilst also being beautiful pieces in themselves. The subject of Lachrymae mournfully rests her arm on a pillar, with a similarly dynamic, lounging post to Flaming June, and shows Leighton’s experimentation with the gold light in the background. The Maid with Golden Hair, which the exhibition notes tell us would have been one of Leighton’s most sellable pieces, shows a women reading, seemingly deep in thought, with a cascade of golden hair around her shoulders and bathed in golden light. The red-haired woman makes the painting feel distinctly Pre-Raphaelite and serves as a good example of the painting conventions of the age.

Photo: Kevin Moran, courtesy Leighton House Museum

Alongside these five paintings the exhibition gives an insight into the process of Frederic Leighton creating them at Leighton House. Through developing sketches we see Flaming June’s unconventional pose being methodically worked on, suggesting that such a casual, lounging pose actually took months of planning and perfecting. We also see a large black and white image of the five paintings on easels in Leighton House, previewed to friends and family by Leighton himself before submission to The Royal Academy. These works have been denied a context for so long, and being able to experience them with the understanding of Leighton’s process as an artist lends them a new significance. The influence of these five images, particularly Flaming June, are prevalent in the rest of the house, with hidden corners such as a small bedroom exhibiting some Flaming June merchandise, referencing the painting’s lasting influence.

Photo: Kevin Moran, courtesy Leighton House Museum

The exhibition offers an incredible opportunity to see one of the most famous, yet also divisive and mysterious paintings returned back to its original context at the elaborate Leighton House. Exhibited alongside Leighton’s impressive body of paintings from the Victorian era, it shows the development of his artistic achievements, culminating in these masterful submissions to The Royal Academy towards the very end of his life. Whilst many galleries can only consign the history of a painting to a footnote, this entire exhibition and its location serves gives a completely unique insight in the life and work of an artist, as well as the incredible story of a single painting.

Flaming June runs until 2 April 2017 at Leighton House in Kensington. Tickets are £12 with concessions available. Find out more here.

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